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There’s plenty of action in this coastal Florida town to keep you entertained -- and not just on the playing field. Pack your appetite as we take you on a culinary tour of this often-overlooked dining destination. . Photographs by Sean McCormick.

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It’s Friday night in Tampa, Florida. A balmy breeze blows along the Hillsborough River, where the gleaming minarets of the University of Tampa reflect in the ripples that snake softly through the city and west into the bay. Here, near the water, the evening is peaceful.

But downtown, the city is just waking up. At Curtis Hixon Park, a stretch of green along the banks of the Hillsborough, the Florida Orchestra is wrapping up an alfresco concert. Actors on the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center’s five stages are taking curtain calls, and film lovers a few blocks away are enjoying the final screening of the night at the historic Tampa Theatre. And at the St. Pete Times Forum, on the edge of the city, hockey fans are streaming out of the arena after a Tampa Bay Lightning win. The streets are alive with people, laughter, and music.

Downtown Tampa has not always been like this. For decades, this area was a ghost town after dark, ditched for the burbs at sunset by the lawyers and bankers who worked in the city’s towers. But in recent years, downtown Tampa has come back in a big way. In late 2007, Skypoint, the area’s first major residential project in a generation, laid out the welcome mat for 32 stories of condo buyers and helped breathe new life into the surrounding streets. Another tower is on the way, while additional loft projects and condominium buildings have already added to the skyline appeal.

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This boom has spearheaded a shift in the local culinary scene as well, as downtown cuisine has finally caught up with the rest of the city’s. Now, no matter where you travel in Tampa, a satisfying meal is right around the corner. The cultural influences that have infused the city’s history books and family trees are well represented, to be sure. But Tampa is also a foodie’s paradise of world-class steak houses, swank wine bars, trendy bistros, and corner cafés. It even boasts two Ethiopian restaurants -- proof, for anyone who was doubtful, of the city’s international appeal.

If You Go...

Bern’s Steak House
1208 South Howard Avenue

Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant
1502 South Howard Avenue

Ciccio & Tony’s
1015 South Howard Avenue

The Columbia
2117 East Seventh Avenue

Fly Bar and Restaurant
1202 North Franklin Street

La Teresita
3246 West Columbus Drive

Malio’s Prime Steakhouse
400 North Ashley Drive

Silver Ring
1430 East Seventh Avenue

Taps Wine & Beer Merchants
777 North Ashley Drive

Valencia Garden
811 West Kennedy Boulevard

1015 1/2 South Howard Avenue

Tampa will get the chance to show off its hospitable side when it hosts Super Bowl XLIII next month. But whether you’re headed here for the big game or for a little getaway, we’ll tell you how to treat your taste buds to the best the city has to offer.

We start off our culinary adventure in the revitalized city center. Fly Bar and Restaurant opened two years ago and was one of the first restaurants to hit it big downtown. Guests here enjoy seasonal shared plates of global cuisine -- the Kobe-beef sliders, pan-roasted black grouper, and Panko-crusted goat cheese are not to be missed -- along with an impressive wine list and signature cocktails. The spacious restaurant’s industrial-chic setting is complete with exposed ducts and handcrafted wrought-iron bar stools. Big Easy– inspired artwork hangs bright and high on the exposed brick walls, while a jazz band grooves on the corner stage. Diners looking to take advantage of Tampa’s pleasant year-round temperatures can linger at the restaurant’s street-side tables or on the rooftop deck.

Nestled in the curves of Tampa’s lighthouse-shaped Rivergate Tower, Malio’s Prime Steakhouse joined the urban pioneer movement in 2007. As it was a longtime favorite in its original South Tampa location, Malio’s brought much of its loyal clientele with it when it moved downtown; from lunch to late night, its regulars mix with a crowd of young professionals thrilled to have another hot spot for spirits and stylish dining. Guests can dine inside in private booths or enjoy the riverside ambience on the patio. Don’t leave without ordering the lobster bisque, New York strip, and shrimp fra diablo.

Taps Wine & Beer Merchants set up shop last spring on the ground floor of Skypoint, providing tangible proof of the “Retail follows rooftops” maxim. The eatery’s plush couches and sidewalk tables were an immediate draw for the upstairs neighbors, as was the vast selection of adult beverages. Stainless-steel serve-yourself taps tucked into the walls dispense more than 100 kinds of wine, while bartenders pour more than 250 varieties of beer. The lounge has become a favorite for lunch and dinner -- not just for Skypoint residents but for office dwellers from the surrounding streets as well. Try the curried salmon tartare, prosciutto di parma sandwich, and smokey guacamole.

Located just five minutes from downtown, the historic neighborhood of Hyde Park has attracted families for years with its stately mansions and brick-paved streets. The area has earned a reputation for dining and nightlife over the past decade. South Howard Avenue, also known as Restaurant Row and SoHo, is bustling nearly every night of the week; it has more eateries per square foot than any other quarter of the city. Looking for Italian? SoHo has Bella Trattoria. Middle Eastern? Try Soho Oasis Cafe. Tex-Mex and tequila? The Lime. And that’s just the beginning.

The granddaddy of Hyde Park -- indeed, of Tampa dining -- is inarguably Bern’s Steak House, enticing and world-famous not just for its culinary excellence but also for its elegant ambience. Work your way from the bottom of the restaurant to the top, beginning with a tour of the 100,000-bottle wine cellar and ending with a trip to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, where exquisite creations from Bern’s chefs redefine decadence. In between, enjoy French onion soup au gratin, chateaubriand, or yellowtail snapper à la plancha in the main dining room. Though Bern’s is a superb destination for a special occasion (see the caviar menu), diners looking for a more casual evening can order a steak sandwich at the bar and enjoy the camaraderie of the coterie of locals there.

Poolside tables and live music have made Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant a SoHo late-night favorite. But the charming bungalow setting, inspired by the tapas bars of Spain, is appealing anytime. Pitchers of sangria are the ideal match for the 100-plus menu items, which range from the house favorite ceviche (tangy, fresh, and served in a martini glass) to tres leches, the signature dessert (made of meringue cake). Regulars also can’t resist the mejillones ahumados, cazuela de Sevilla, and solomillo a la parilla.

Bowls, rolls, and sushi meet Italian-influenced California cuisine at Ciccio &; Tony’s and the adjoining restaurant, Water, which formerly were two separate eateries but now are fused together as one. The joint space is sleek and stylish, with cozy booths inside and patio dining around a charming fountain outside. Lemongrass stir-fry, seafood wakame salad, and the dynamite crab roll are favorites at this two-in-one dining spot.

For diners who have a taste for tradition, Tampa offers plenty of places to indulge in the authentic flavors of its Cuban and Spanish heritages. La Teresita is one of the finest restaurants, legendary for its delicious Cuban food not only in its historic West Tampa neighborhood (where the main street is dubbed Boliche Boulevard after a popular Cuban dish) but all over the city. Grab a stool at the casual counter, or snag a table in the main dining room. Tampa politicos and power brokers gather for lunch at Valencia Garden, a renowned restaurant on the edge of downtown. Make no mistake: The Cuban cuisine here is delicious, but it’s the schmoozing that really adds spice to this landmark.

And no gastronomic tour of Tampa is complete without a pilgrimage to Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Latin Quarter. The Silver Ring Café is the gem of the district and boasts the best Cuban sandwich in town. And Columbia Restaurant -- a local favorite since 1905, when it opened as a corner café to serve cigar-factory workers -- boasts flamenco dancing and superb Spanish and Cuban dining in a beautiful setting.

From old-world tradition to the new classics, local essences to international flavors, up-tempo dinner and dancing to downtown cool and cocktails, Tampa has it all. So don’t hit the road as soon as you’ve had your fill of football. The fun here continues even after the lights at Raymond James Stadium go dark. 


the best of the bay
Don’t miss these attractions around town.

Tampa Theatre
The city’s stunning movie house opened in 1926 with The Ace of Cads on the big screen, and tickets were a quarter each. Today, the historic cinema hosts about 650 events every year, including movies, concerts, live theater, and educational programs for kids. Upcoming: Arlo Guthrie, March 7. 711 North Franklin Street, 813-274-8981, www.tampatheatre.org

El Circulo Cubano de Tampa (Cuban Club)
Once the social and cultural heart of immigrant life in historic Ybor City, this neoclassical beauty now hosts concerts, arts events, and parties year-round. 2010 Avenida Republica de Cuba, 813-248-2954.

Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center
For more than 20 years, TBPAC has helped to elevate Tampa as a true cultural player, drawing Broadway touring productions and national acts as well as creating a space for local artists to thrive. The adjacent Patel Conservatory provides classes in all disciplines, from dance to acting to costume design. Upcoming at TBPAC: Frost/Nixon, February 17 through 22, and the Russian National Ballet Theatre’s Giselle, February 25. 1010 North W.C. MacInnes Place, 813-229-7827, www.tbpac.org

Ford Amphitheatre
Locals come here to enjoy live music in stadium-style seating or on a spacious sloping lawn under the stars. 4802 North U.S. 301, 813-740-2446.

Tampa Museum of Art
The TMA’s new location is under construction and scheduled to open later this year. In the interim, exhibits are being housed at Centro Español, a historic building in the west Tampa neighborhood known as Ybor City. Upcoming: “Drawing in Space: The Peninsula Project, Sculpture by John Henry” exhibit, January 17 through April 4. 2306 North Howard Avenue, 813-274-8130, www.tampamuseum.com

St. Pete Times Forum
The indoor arena is the home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and of the Tampa Bay Storm indoor-football team; it also hosts concerts and other events. In the mezzanine-style XO Club, members enjoy spirits and buffet dining with VIP views of the action below. Upcoming: Eagles’ Long Road Out of Eden tour, January 29. 401 Channelside Drive, 813-301-2500, www.sptimesforum.com




big lights, bright city
Next month, the spotlight will be on Tampa in more ways than one.

The eyes of the United States -- and about 240 other nations -- will be on Tampa come February 1. But in addition to hosting the biggest showdown in sports (plus Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at halftime), the city will hold a variety of special events and swank soirees in the days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. The most dazzling of these events will surely be Lights On Tampa, a public art project running from now through February 1.

This cutting-edge venture wowed thousands of viewers when it originally debuted in 2006, and it promises to deliver a spectacle of the same caliber this time around. Artists will showcase large-scale light installations that illuminate various spaces and structures around the urban core, including the Tampa Convention Center, St. Pete Times Forum, Cotanchobee Park, and Fort Brooke Parking Garage.

The artistic team of Will Pappenheimer and Chipp Jansen has created one of the most intriguing projects of the series: It’s known as the Tampa Public Mood Ring, a fabulous temporary structure that recalls the 1970s mood-ring jewelry fad on a tremendous scale. With the help of Gerdau Ameristeel, a local recycled-steel company, the duo will gauge the town’s temperament via online citizen interaction. Find this work along the waterfront in Cotanchobee Park, just behind the St. Pete Times Forum.

Artists Friedrich Förster and Sabine Weissinger, known collectively as Casa Magica, will transform the mundane south facade of the Fort Brooke Parking Garage into a blizzard of light. Meanwhile, Carlton Ward Jr., a conservation photographer based just across the bay, in Clearwater, will have his work viewed on a Portal prototype -- a three-sided cube of LED screens that will display 10-minute loops of digital photography. Ward’s work will explore arts and culture, the environment, and well-being -- a trio of concepts integral not just to the urban landscape but also to the artist’s oeuvre.

For more information, visit www.lightsontampa.org.